Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.
On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.
In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:
“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”
Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.
Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, a leading independent scientist, Nicholas Eastaugh of Art Access and Research, described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”
However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):
“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures.
As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”
History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”
In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.
The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.
Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .
In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:
“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”
Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.
While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:
“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”
There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?
The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.
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NEW YEAR REPORT
Assaults on History:
Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence
We had a good and eventful campaigning year in 2013. At home, ArtWatch was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament for the interests of art and against a municipal arts bureaucracy seeking to overturn a prodigiously generous benefactor’s wishes and instructions in order, effectively, to reward its own negligence with an extension of powers and a major capital project (without clear costing). Our views on this proposal were carried in the October Museums Journal, the December Apollo (see Burrell pdf) and in the Sunday Times (Scotland). We found ourselves in the midst of a high-level museum world schism.
MacGregor versus Penny
Speaking for the overturning of Sir William Burrell’s terms of bequest was the Glaswegian director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor. Mr MacGregor had agreed (presumably with the blessing of his trustees) to be co-opted as an adviser and declared partisan onto a Glasgow Life body – “Burrell Renaissance”. In support of Glasgow Life’s ambitions, MacGregor expressed with characteristic (lawerish) eloquence impatience with the length of time in which The Living might find themselves governed by the Wishes of the Dead. The present director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny (a scholar, rather than a populariser of others’ scholarship) spoke no less eloquently in opposition: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”
The matter will come before the Scottish Parliament this month. Intriguingly, one of the members of the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Burrell Lending request from Glasgow Life, Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP, told yesterday’s Sunday Times (Scotland) that: “I too was concerned at the cost of £45m bearing in mind that Kelvingrove refurbishment cost £29m and they raised £2.5m from sponsorship and donations. The major work at the Burrell is a complete new roof and removal of lecture theatre to create new gallery space. Both of which will be costly, but £45m?”
Fresh Crimes Against Art and History
Internationally, two recent horrifically destructive mural restorations (the first in Spain and another in China, see Figs. 1 to 4) had reminded many of the great Sistine Chapel cleaning controversies of the 1980s and early 1990s (see “Restoration tragedies”). In January 2013 we were drawn back into that monumental Sistine Chapel restoration controversy (which had triggered ArtWatch’s founding in 1992) by an official acknowledgement that Michelangelo’s stripped-down ceiling frescoes were prey to failures of environmental regulation that were being exacerbated by swelling visitor numbers. We had warned against such failures twenty years earlier: “Artificially induced changes in moisture, heat and patterns of air convection can themselves do gross damage…The most obvious risk is that external air-borne pollutants will be pulled in.” (“The Physical Condition of the Sistine Ceiling”, Chapter IV, p.122, Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, London, 1993.)
An Old Crime Implodes
At the beginning of last year, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, insisted that whatever the problems, visitor numbers could not be restricted: “We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture. Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Today, the unthinkable may be on the cards. Paolucci acknowledges in this month’s Art Newspaper that the huge increases in visitor numbers (5,459,000 last year from 4m the year before) constitute his biggest practical problem:
“…The sheer numbers can be damaging, especially in the Sistine Chapel, which everyone wants to see. At the height of the season it gets 20,000 to 25,000 people a day, all breathing out carbon dioxide and vapour and bringing in dust. We are employing Carrier, a top US firm [who donated and installed the presently failing system] to work out a method of dealing with humidity; otherwise we will have to limit numbers…” (Emphasis added.)
On January 2nd Paolucci expressed further concerns in a Vatican museums press release: “I’m asking myself what will happen during the coming Easter holidays and the great canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. This will bring to Rome an immense mass of Catholics from every part of the world. Such extraordinary numbers oblige one to make some fundamental and priority considerations. The objective must be from now on to observe constant maintenance and preventive conservation of the Heritage. To do so we must provide ever more important resources.” At the same time, Paolucci promised that, after 3 years of work, all will be ready in May for the “improved air conditioning, reduction of pollutants and humidity control of the temperature.”
Antonio Paolucci, a distinguished Renaissance art scholar (and student of Roberto Longhi), might be thought to be in an impossible position as director of the Vatican’s museums. Presently, Michelangelo’s frescoes are being devoured by pollution and condensation that are the inescapable by-products of permitting the Sistine Chapel to serve as a tourism cash cow. At the time of the last restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican’s finances were a source of scandal (one of its bankers had been found hanged on a bridge in London). On December 7/8 last year the Financial Times reported “The Vatican bank was established to serve the work of the Catholic Church around the world. It has now become synonymous with financial scandal. An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the Euros 5bn-asset bank and the murkiness of its operations that finally led regulators, international agencies, big banks and even Pope Francis himself to take action.” (Rachel Sanderson, “The Scandal at God’s Bank”.) In this climate, is cutting back visitors really an option? For that matter, is the new air-conditioning system promised for May capable of coping with yet further increases of visitors of the kind indicated by Paolucci?
In the absence of dramatic reductions of visitor numbers (which must presently be netting in excess of £75m p.a.) it is hard to see how any amount of conservation tinkering might resolve the present crisis. It would never be logistically possible to seal every visitor inside a “moon-suit” that would prevent the destructive cycles of evaporation and condensation that were already known in 1993 to be creating continuous migrations of salts and vapour within the frescoes. (At that date it was established that some 425 kilos of water were being pumped into the chapel’s microclimate by the daily total of 17,000 visitors. On today’s visits that volume of water must reach 600 kilos per day.)
No increase of expenditure could reverse the initial un-wisdom of stripping Michelangelo’s frescoes down to the bare plaster, thereby both bowdlerising his art and exposing its remains to environmental degradation. No expenditure could put back the glue painting with which Michelangelo had modified and intensified the sculptural presence of his figures and the unprecedented dramatically illuminated theatre which they occupied. Those characteristics had startled and awed his contemporaries. They were repeatedly recorded in copies made in Michelangelo’s own lifetime and for centuries afterwards (see, in particular the late 18th century copy opposite at Fig. 8).
The Vatican is presently attempting to rebuild the relationship between the Church and contemporary art that was sundered 200 years ago. It is a noble aim but it will remain a vain one until the corruption of art history that followed the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling is acknowledged and addessed. What Michelangelo achieved on the ceiling was unprecedented and precious: a profoundly spiritual fusion of the human and the divine that was rendered corporeal and situated in a palpable space contiguous with our own. Scholar supporters of the restoration claimed in defence of the emasculation of that original stupendous and unique achievement that we could now make “more sense” of Michelangelo; that we could now see a clearer link between his art and that of the inferiors who preceded and followed him. As long as the Church continues to endorse so unfounded, untenable an account, it will be in no moral position to forge any constructive relationship between itself and today’s artists.
If the cash flow is to be maintained and if Michelangelo is to be preserved, there would seem to be only one conceivable solution: as with other environmentally vulnerable archaeological/artistic sites, a full-size, absolutely faithful facsimile of the chapel will have to be built as a destination for the ever-swelling press of tourists. Creating an alternative “virtual” chapel might seem a shocking prospect and a colossal admission of failure but would it be more unpalatable than proceeding with the proposed plan described in our previous post to turn the remains of Michelangelo’s own frescoes into a “virtual” colourised caricature of themselves with 7,000 individually attuned colour-enhancing LED lights that would flood the ceiling with an artifical and chromatically falsifying light ten times more powerful than today’s? Building a facsimile to draw the tourists would mean that what survives of Michelangelo’s original work might then be left in peace, as it is, and once again in a congenial, stable climate.
Further and Fresh Doubts
On November 30th Peter Aspden, the Financial Times’s culture correspondent, declared that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (“the most important such project in recent history”) had been a “crushing disappointment”. Recalling that before restoration the frescoes had been “more real, more subtle, more moving”, Aspden noted that arguments in defence of the restoration “have been rebutted, with no little ferocity.”
If Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes remain the worst case of injuries suffered in the great post-war restoration bonanza, they are not alone. Fortunately there are increasing signs of doubts about modern restoration procedures elsewhere. Consider this further critique of picture restorers that emerged from a most surprising quarter on December 17th:
“…The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today’s conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn’t go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again. It’s a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be ‘conserving’ them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today’s foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow’s restorers. Sometimes I think it’s all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator’s union.”
We had noted on 12 July last year that “There has never been a make-work project like art restoration”, and earlier, on 17 March 2011, that “Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion… Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes”. Although we greatly welcome the recent tacit endorsement, its source is perplexing. The author, Bendor Grosvenor, made these remarks on his (lively and informative) blog, Art History News.
Art Market restorations
Mr Grosvenor, a modern historian by training, has for a number of years worked as a researcher and, latterly, as a second pair of eyes for the Mayfair art dealer, Philip Mould, who happens to be a highly active “stripper-downer” of paintings in search of something better and more valuable underneath. In countless BBC television programmes, in his 1995 book Sleepers and in his 2009 book Sleuth, Mr Mould has been a most effective propagandist for today’s professional restorers, of whom Grosvenor evidently now entertains doubts. Mould himself has conceded with increasing frequency that great risks attend the stripping down of paintings. When asked recently on the best method of cleaning pictures, he replied somewhat flippantly “With spit and polish” and made no mention of the solvents – principally acetone – and scalpels used by his own restorers. (We have been haunted for some years by advice given on how to remove nail varnish when no acetone nail varnish remover is to hand: brush on fresh nail varnish, leave for a few moments and then wipe off. The acetone in the new liquid varnish swiftly dissolves the old hard varnish enabling both to be removed with the same cloth.)
Concealment and Disclosure
With the public museum sector we feel compelled to examine the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions. One such is the Clark Institute’s Turner “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which work is once again being promoted in Britain as the Belle of Turner’s Ball, this time at the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea” exhibition. As our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, has established, another such restoration-wrecked picture hangs in the Frick Collection as an autograph Vermeer (“Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ at The Frick Collection”). The Frick has refused to release to ArtWatch an archive photograph that shows the frequently undone and redone picture at its most pictorially deranged and incoherent “in-restoration” state. A copy of that photograph is held by the Getty Institute but it cannot be released because of the Frick’s enforcement of copyright ownership. All but the most informed visitors to the Frick will likely have no inkling of what lies beneath the present surface. Where Philip Mould seeks to identify and uncover works of quality that have been distorted by later accretions (- the art trade’s “sleepers”), the Frick presently conspires to pass off tricked-up underlying pictorial carnage as Vermeer’s own handiwork.
The Frick is not alone. The Phillips Collection in Washington has repeatedly spurned our requests to examine the conservation and filmed records of the Kecks’ ruination of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Museums have grown bolder in promoting their own conservation efforts, sometimes placing restorers behind glass walls to permit public scrutiny. This seeming increase of public accessibility can have an ulterior motive: one leading international conservator disclosed that the practice serves to prevent embarrassing public outbreaks of shock and indignation when familiar works are unveiled after long incarceration in conservation studios. A Turner painting currently undergoing such public exposure is running at the Bowes Museum where the restorer is presently taking a break after encountering difficulties not identified by preliminary “scientific investigations” – the very type of investigation in which Philip Mould has expressed great confidence.
As we have seen in a number of televised Mould restorations, carrying out preliminary scientific tests does not eliminate surprises in the course of restoration once restorers start swiftly cutting through varnishes with their swabs and solvents to get to the paint underneath. We remain sceptical of the value of preliminary scientific or chemical analyses, not least because, as in the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the analysis said to “prove” the artist had not completed his frescoes with glue-based painting conflicts with other more relevant – and, in fact, irrefutable – proofs of the kind often demonstrated on this site, as here today at Figs.13, 14 and 15.
ArtWatch has another full and ideologically challenging year ahead but a first priority will be to demonstrate the extent to which naïve and misplaced faith in today’s restorers can make professional monkeys of scholars, curators and trustees.
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Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow
It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.
When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.
The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).
The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.
To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:
“There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”
Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.
The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:
“It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.
Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:
“The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”
That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.
What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.
At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?
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Protecting the Burrell Collection ~ A Blast against Risk-Deniers
In a remarkable development the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has served notice to the trustees of the Burrell Collection of the grave risks they would be undertaking if they were to loan the collection abroad against the terms of Sir William Burrell’s magnificent 1944 bequest to the city of Glasgow.
As the Herald Scotland reports (6 September), Dr Penny has attacked the “deplorable tendency” for museum staffs to deny the grave risks that are run when works of art are transported around the world. In his submission to the Scottish Parliament committee now considering the bill to overturn the terms of Burrell’s bequest and his specific prohibition on overseas loans (to which committee we will be appearing as a witness this month), Penny, who has had knowledge of 10 major accidents during his career in museums and galleries in Britain and the US, offered to give details of the cases, in confidence to a trustworthy individual to be nominated by the Scottish Government. News of this offer and of Penny’s views broke when Herald Scotland spotted an accidental posting of his submission on the Scottish Parliament’s website.
Unsurprisingly, Penny’s bombshell has caused consternation among those wishing to send the collection on tour during a refurbishment of the building in Pollok Park which is expected to take four years and cost £40m. (We have have expressed bemusement in the past at the nicely rounded figures of building restoration costs which so often come in at sums like… £40m.)
The body “Glasgow Life” which runs Glasgow’s museums is reported to have been “flabbergasted by this”. If it is surprising that a museum director should be outspoken on this sensitive subject which involves a number of art world vested interests, there can be no surprise to readers of this site about the reality of the risks and the adverse material consequences of which Penny complains. In honour of Artwatch International’s founder, the late Professor James Beck, the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal (No 22) carried a thirteen pages long report on the dangers of art loans – “Blockbuster Exhibitions: the Hidden Costs and Perils”, by Michael Daley and Michael Savage. For the full text of the report, click on this PDF. (Michael Savage has posted a response to Penny’s intervention on his Grumpy Art Historian blog.) On 13 December 2010, in response to an appeal from Polish curators and conservators to help halt a further loan of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (“An Appeal from Poland”), we disclosed the extent of an injury to a panel painting by Beccafumi that was dropped and smashed when being dismantled from a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery (see top, right). That photograph (and an internal report on the incident) had been given to Artwatch by Dr Penny when we commented in our Journal on news of the incident carried on the National Gallery’s website.
On 11 July 2011 we reported (“Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”) on how the Tate had paid a £3.5m ransom to Serbian gangsters in order to recover two Turner paintings that had been stolen when sent (without a Tate courier) to a small, badly protected German gallery.
The Herald Scotland reports that Glasgow Life is proud to have “formed a partnership with the British Museum, one of the leading authorities on loaning items, to benefit from its expertise”.
It is true that under its present director, Neil MacGregor, the British Museum is a hyper-active dispatcher of art around the globe (- over 4,000 objects in 2006 alone). It should be appreciated, however, that practice does not make perfect in this hazardous arena. As described in our Journal 22 report, when the British Museum packed the peerless, desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings and sent them all to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 16 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s low doorways were too low. No one, presumably, had thought to measure them first. It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door – which meant that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs”, the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darren Day, explained in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes. When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they, too, would not pass through the door of the reading room, even when the door’s frame was removed – some expertise?
A restorer in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, has claimed that there is a professional concept of “acceptable potential loss” with regard to loans. As described in our 8 February 2011 post (“The European Commission’s way of moving works of art around”), since 2003 it has been a declared ambition of the European Commission to “facilitate”, “encourage”, “promote” and make “easy” the “mobility of art collections” within Europe. To this end, the EU urges that loaned works of art not be insured, on the extraordinary conviction that accidents can always be remedied: “in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
The simpliste Eurocratic view of restoration is the more alarming because, travel accidents aside, with increased volumes and velocities of loans come an explosion of needless, often themselves destructive, conservation and restoration “treatments” that are undertaken prior to loan exhibitions as lenders seek to protect themselves by having their works “put in condition” for travel. This is done in order to be able to identify and establish (for insurance or blame-allocation purposes) the origin of subsequent injuries. Unfortunately, putting works into restorers hands in such bids to attain supposedly optimally secure condition for travelling itself presents hazards. We discussed one of the most spectacular examples of needless injury in our post of 8 January 2011. On that occasion an owner put his prized and beloved Renoir into the hands of a pair of leading restorers simply to lay a couple of small blisters and then to dispatch the picture from Washington to Paris. The restorers, without any authorisation, presumed to clean, reline (and wreck) the painting, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as the distraught owner, Duncan Phillips, later confessed. On arrival in Paris, the newly restored Renoir was at first rejected as a Renoir. Having long enjoyed pride of place in the home of the great collector, Phillips moved it on its return from Paris into an anteroom. Today it enjoys pride of a place in a hideous over-scaled modern extension to the delightful period house that Phillips bequeathed, along with his collection. The present administrators of the museum have refused all requests to inspect the records of treatment on that painting, and, generally seem rather more animated by mounting their own special exhibitions than in ministering to the original and perfectly self-sufficient collection:
“Intersections is a series of contemporary art projects that explores —as the title suggests— the intriguing intersections between old and new traditions, modern and contemporary art practices, and museum spaces and artistic interventions. Whether engaging with the permanent collection or diverse spaces in the museum, the projects suggest new relationships with their own surprises.
“Many of the projects also riff on the nontraditional nature of the museum’s galleries, sometimes activating spaces that are not typical exhibition areas with art produced specifically for those locations.”
Burrell be warned. Awful as recent “developments” at the Phillips have been, the United States has witnessed an even greater betrayal of a bequest: the wresting of the entire contents of the Barnes Collection from its, also bequested, delightful purpose-built original home and grounds, in order to place it in a worse than awful modernist pile a few miles away, hard by a noisy polluting freeway in the centre of Philadelphia. The denouement of the Barnes Bequest hike began (as is proposed at the Burrell) with a vast international travelling exhibition. At the Barnes, as now at the Burrell, the jaunt was premised on the morally-coercive “conservation” justification of putting the building itself “into condition” on behalf of the great collection of works. Humbug has rarely appeared so rank. The specially commissioned “site specific” Matisse mural was detached from the walls of the museum, packed on a flat-bed, open truck – against all reassuring conservation-compatible promises – and carried at an angle (see photographs, right) to Washington. Nick Tinari, who is to submit testimony to the Burrell Inquiry, has informed ArtWatch “I can state unequivocally that damage was done on the tour to the Matisse mural, the Seurat Models and a Picasso. I have documentation for all three.” Tinari further points out that, as with the intended Burrell tour, the Barnes tour – which netted $7m – breached the benefactor’s express prohibition on foreign loans. Far from serving to make the collection safe, that earlier exercise paved the way to a full takeover. More generally, it served as a template for trustees everywhere who might wish to harvest cash value that is otherwise locked into permanently housed works of art.
Clearly, Dr Penny’s intervention addresses much more than the welfare of the Burrell Collection, precious and vulnerable though it is. It is greatly to Penny’s credit that he should have spoken in such frank (and brave) terms. It is also greatly to the credit of the Scottish Parliament that it should be engaging in such an open exercise before another art world horse may be induced to bolt.
On 7 September, Herald Scotland reported the submission of written evidence made by Dr Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch:
“Dr Selby Whittingham, of Donor Watch, says in his submission: ‘There can be a case for departing from the terms of a bequest when those are incapable of being carried out wholly or safely … but that does not apply in the Burrell case in this instance.
‘This bill is a consequence of the current vogue for loan exhibitions and for using outward loans as barter for inward loans. This vogue is not wholly benign. It deprives visitors to a museum of works which they may expect to see. And we are not convinced that the transport of works of art is as free from hazard as the advocates of this measure optimistically maintain…’”
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size
“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”
~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.
“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”
T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.
It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” . Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)
Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.
The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.
A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”
In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.
When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).
How Doubts became Denials
With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:
“Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”
This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:
“The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”
Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:
“But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:
“Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”
Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.
The “New Michelangelo”
The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:
“Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.
Further Material Evidence of Injury
Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.
Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics
In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.
To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”
An Artist Thwarted
The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.
Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).
An Artist Heeded
When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.
Shooting the Messengers
When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:
“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation.
“Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another…
“To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?”
“If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”
In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:
“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”
If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:
“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore.
“None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”
At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”
Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”
In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.
The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It
When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.
Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.
Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:
“Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”
As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy , had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.
Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity
In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.
Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship
In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) . He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”
This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)
Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory
Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:
“When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”
Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”
Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.
Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt
As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:
“The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]
While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:
“Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”
That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet [...] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)
The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition
Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.
Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”
After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”
On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”
Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:
“I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”
A Restorer’s Response
Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.
Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all.  In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:
“I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”
Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities
Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?
In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).
Mr MacGregor’s Choice
Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:
“Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”
MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.
Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods
In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.’”
Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.
The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?
The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”
Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.
Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:
“Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”
We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters’”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.
It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating:
“One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.”
Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”
Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):
“With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”
Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.
Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner . He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance:
“There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.”
Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”
Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.
By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:
“The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.”
And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”
Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.
Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.
1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987.
2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London.
3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists.
4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.)
5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: email@example.com)
6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.”
For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.
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The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part II:
How to Take a Michelangelo Sibyl Apart, from Top to Toes
“I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, 1990
We were startled when the Vatican authorities admitted that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes are in greater peril than at any point in their history. Powerful art institutions rarely broadcast their own embarrassments. More often, they see off their critics by sitting tight, quietly briefing journalistic proxies and…continuing to be. Welcome as was the acknowledgement of the problem by Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, casting the Chapel’s paying visitors as the principal cause of the present crisis, masked greater institutional responsibilities.
The Vatican has yet to acknowledge that this environmental crisis arose as a direct consequence – and within just two decades – of permitting the Chapel’s ancient frescoes to be used as a test bed for the then new and highly controversial cleaning agent “Mixture AB 57″. And, despite the brouhaha over toxic visitors, there remains no hint of acknowledgement that the restorations of the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded on an art critical misreading which, in addition to stripping the fresco surfaces bare and leaving a chemical time-bomb within the Chapel, inflicted grave and irreversible artistic injuries on Michelangelo’s paintings – see right.
On the cleaning method’s toxic conservation legacy, we had precisely warned in 1993 that: “even if the Vatican team were to concede that the brilliance of Michelangelo’s new colours is a chemical deceit purchased at the cost of a physical and chemical weakening of the frescoes, the dispute would not be laid to rest. The need to avoid further deterioration would still be there.” (James Beck and Michael Daley, “Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, Chapters III and IV.) In similar vein we can now say that today’s promises of dramatic technical “improvements” are simply recycled 1980s assurances that, at best, remain of a palliative nature. Even when promised the first time around, the Vatican authorities had admitted to us (see below) that the measures could not fully solve the then already pressing environmental problems unleashed by the restoration’s experimental method.
The Experimental New Picture Cleaning Method
AB 57 was developed by Professor Paulo Mora and his wife Laura Mora, chief conservators at Rome’s Istituto Centrale del Restauro, for cleaning stone buildings. It comprised: “a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of a solution of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water.” Toti Scialoja, a painter and a former professor at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts, complained that its ingredients were “too powerful – ammonia and soda, the stuff you use to clean your bathtub”. Professor Christoph Frommel, director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome, described it as “a sharp and aggressive chemical”.
The Moras presented AB 57 as a means of removing insoluble salts and incrusted materials from wall paintings: “If the original surface of the painting is unaffected by water then this mixture will have no deleterious action on it”. Michelangelo’s frescoes did not suffer greatly from incrusted and insoluble salts but they were extensively covered with water sensitive glue/size painting which artists, conservation experts and scholars held to comprise Michelangelo’s own final painted adjustments. An early sign of the wrongness of the new cleaning method came when the restorers abandoned customary claims of a miraculous “recovery” of original and authentic conditions. The use of AB 57 had produced such a mismatch between the cleaned frescoes and the early copies that had been made of them, that the hype had to be bolder and of a different order. As seen in our previous post, the decision to clean with AB 57 had been taken quickly and in express excitement at the prospect of overturning art history itself. This dramatic technology-led change of conservation philosophy was reported in a 1983 Newsweek account: “As recently as 1976 while cleaning paintings by the other artists on the side walls of the Chapel, workers deliberately kept the colours muted so that Michelangelo’s wouldn’t look too faded by comparison. ‘Even then it entered nobody’s head to start on Michelangelo’, says master restorer Gianluigi Colalucci. But when a new cleaning solvent was developed, Colalucci tested it…”
Selling the Surprising AB 57-induced Changes to Michelangelo’s Painting
Having used it, the resulting rupture between the old Michelangelo and his restored self was trumpeted by Fabrizio Mancinelli, the Vatican Museums’ curator and co-director, with Gianluigi Colalucci, of the restoration. Mancinelli claimed in 1986 that the restoration “had brought to light (and will continue to bring to light) a totally new artist, a colourist quite different in character from the unnaturally sombre character who has in the past fascinated generations of historians, connoisseurs and fellow artists…The cleaning of the frescoes has led to the surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle smoke and still more of glue varnishes applied possibly even before the 18th century.” (“The Sistine Chapel ~ Michelangelo Rediscovered”, p. 218.)
Even though no evidence was ever produced of extensive glue applications having been made by restorers, in the early years, art historians and credulous art critics queued to repudiate what one scholar dubbed the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of traditional Michelangelo studies. The proclaimed “New Michelangelo”, however, was an entirely modern chemically engineered artefact, not a scholarly construct. In fact, it flew in the face of the historical record: Michelangelo had been celebrated at his own funeral not for any colouristic brilliance – let alone for, as one critic recently held, the “sharp and acid palette used by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” – but for his “fleeting, sombre colours”. The new art historical dispensation rested on a twentieth century purging of aged, sometimes distressed but nonetheless authentic material. Indeed, it was precisely because this was not a historically-informed recovery of an original state that drums had had to be rolled for “The New Michelangelo”.
It was claimed that this revisionist reading of historical and material evidence had been corroborated “scientifically”. But this was a New Science to sanction a New Michelangelo. Scientific examinations of the frescoes in the 1930s by X-ray and ultra-violet imaging techniques had led to altogether contrary conclusions. It was reported in 1938 that Michelangelo’s “overpaintings were lying quite brightly a secco on the fresco layer itself; these overpaintings proved themselves undoubtedly the painting of the Master himself.” (See “Art Restoration”, Chapter III.) It was further claimed that Colalucci and his colleagues had recovered the original fresco surfaces so deftly that they had preserved its “original” patina and even left a thin layer of dirt above them that would protect the new surface from airborne pollution. Well, we all now know from the present panic in the Vatican that that assurance was not worth a used solvent swab and that a couple of years ago “unimaginable amounts” of dirt were scrubbed off the frescoes by conservators working at night so as not to impede the daytime tourism stream.
The Over-Selling of Conservation Science
Conservation science has its uses but it can never analyse or appraise works of art because Art’s essential properties are aesthetic not material; perceptual not mechanical. Insofar as there might be a science of art, it is to be found in art itself and within artists’ own practices. This is because art consists not so much of materials as of values and the relationships between values that artists’ create and orchestrate, albeit, with materials. These values are aesthetically relative, not intrinsic to materials, and they are continuously appraised and adjusted by artists as they work. Self-criticism, self-analysis and continuous aesthetic appraisal are integral to the making of art. With art, critical and analytical faculties can never be replaced by apparatuses or be donned by technicians. Conservation science might sometimes tell us of what something is made but never by whom it was made.
The Mis-Appliance of Conservation Science
In terms of professional art restoration, conservation science can serve a useful diversionary purpose. The restoration-authorising authorities and art lovers alike can be invited to put aside critical responses on an implicit assurance that some inscrutable but infallible force has guaranteed the probity of whichever of the many conflicting restoration methodologies is being used at that moment. We ArtWatchers are not inclined to be so trusting nor so easily led. In the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, having examined evidence of the cleaning method and its consequences for two and a half decades, and being now armed with the officially published accounts, we are confident that not only can it be shown that Michelangelo’s tonal/plastic systems were recently injured, but that even his very designs, his drawing, his vaunted disegno were repeatedly violated and corrupted.
A Catastrophic Loss of Art Citical Nerve
These losses and violations were not so much unfortunate by-products of an inappropriately aggressive cleaning agent as the consequence of prior and catastrophic failures of art critical judgement and powers of aesthetic analysis. This failure was evident not only within the Vatican’s curatorial, scientific and conservation staffs, but throughout much of the wider international art historical establishment. By effectively agreeing to “de-attribute” what were – and had always been recognised to be – the last stages of Michelangelo’s own work, an overly deferential art historical establishment sanctioned their destruction. For all this (initial) pan-national consensus, the judgement was historically rogue. In 1986, when defending his own restoration, the chief restorer, Gianluigi Colalucci admitted that his professional predecessors’ judgements had been contrary to his own and “not encouraging” to the restoration. That was an understatement: restorers who had worked on the previous restoration (1935-36) had officially and flatly reported that Michelangelo had “finished off a secco”, that is, that he had painted on top of his frescoes when they had dried.
The Testimony of Charles Heath Wilson
Restorers who had worked on the restoration of 1904 had abandoned attempts to clean the frescoes for fear of damaging Michelangelo’s vulnerable work on the surface. Colalucci, greatly in thrall to contemporary “scientific” analysis, dismissed such official reports as “subjective impressions”. He also ignored the testimony of the British painter and fresco expert Charles Heath Wilson who had reported his own close-hand examination of the ceiling in an 1876 book “Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarotti”. Wilson had found the frescoes “extensively retouched with size colour…evidently by the hand of Michelangelo”. He found that this secco painting “readily melted on being touched with a wet finger and consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size probably made according to the usage of the time from parchment shavings.” He further noted, “The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds…The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour …These retouchings…constituted the finishing process or as Condivi [Michelangelo’s preferred biographer] expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’.”
For Wilson, there could “be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in only one part was there evidence of a later and incompetent hand.” Aside from its artistic force, certainty about the secco painting’s antiquity lay in an elegant technical proof: “The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked”. It is a matter of record that the ceiling cracked before any restorers touched it. If, as has been claimed, later restorers had repeatedly applied glues, those glues would inevitably have been brushed into the pre-existing cracks. Wilson, who tested the depth of the cracks with a penknife, saw that none had been. Artists like Wilson appreciate that it is impossible to paint over a cracked surface without working the material into the cracks. Wilson was left in no doubt: having been applied when the ceiling was new and not-yet-cracked, these surface glue paints could only have been Michelangelo’s own work, his finishing stages, his l’ultima mano. Normally, restorers recognise that when varnishes or paints can be shown to have run into age-cracked materials this can be taken as a proof of their more recent origins. On this occasion, the restorers failed to recognise the implications of the converse.
The Vulnerability of Michelangelo’s Glue Painting
Moreover, this original secco work, Wilson appreciated, was water-sensitive, having been damaged when “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. As to when the alleged restorers’ glue-varnishes might plausibly have been applied, no evidence was forthcoming. In 1996 Colalucci said that although “countless attempts at cleaning and restoration seem to have been made”, only “four are actually accounted for”. The four are of 1566, 1824-25, 1904 and 1935-36. As we showed in our post of 1 April 2011, that first restoration itself provided the clearest possible evidence of Michelangelo having painted shadows a secco. That evidence, taken together with the copies of the ceiling discussed opposite should have been an end to the matter. The last two restorations cited by Colalucci coincide with photographic records and these, too, offer no support for the claimed superimpositions of secco painting and glue-varnishes by restorers.
Perplexed by the Vatican’s unwavering but evidently unsupported insistence that the ceiling had repeatedly been coated with glue “varnishes”, I asked in May 1990: “Does any documentary evidence exist to support the claim that hot animal glue was repeatedly applied to the frescoes over the centuries in order to revive the colours?” Colalucci replied that there was none. In 1986 he had reported a note in a manuscript which described how the ceiling had once been cleaned with linen rags and bread “scrubbing hard, and sometimes when the dirt was more tenacious, the bread was moistened a little” but added “That is as much as it says. The note does not mention at all the use of substances to revive colours or of glue varnish.” (See “Art Restoration”, pp. 74-78.) If, as Wilson discovered, the secco painting dissolved at the touch of a wet finger, an earlier hard scrubbing with wet rags or bread would certainly have been sufficient to cause the injuries that Wilson and others had reported to parts of the ceiling.
A Filmed Corroboration of Wilson’s Testimony
Wilson’s appraisal was echoed from another scaffold a century later. In 1967 the art critic and writer Alexander Eliot and his wife Jane Winslow Eliot spent over 500 hours making a close-up documentary film of the ceiling, “The Secret of Michelangelo, Every Man’s Dream”. Alexander Eliot reported in the April 1987 Harvard Review how “with the exception of the previously restored Prophet Zachariah, almost everything we saw on the barrel vault clearly came from Michelangelo’s own inspired hand. There are passages of the finest, most delicately incisive draughtsmanship imaginable. Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles stand in contrast to tremendous swirls of colour…” On 20 May 1985 Eliot had pleaded with the Vatican’s Secretary of State for him to view the Vatican’s own copy of the Eliots’ film and to “have it stopped at the images of the Ancestors [on the lunettes]. Compare what it proves was there against what’s left today”. That precious, now historical, record still awaits a re-showing.
Venanzo Crocetti’s Protests Against the Restoration – as a Sculptor and as a Former Restorer in the Sistine Chapel
In 1989 the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti, who had spent “four full years” working during the 1930s as an apprentice restorer on the scaffold, published three photo-comparisons of the cleaned lunettes in an article in the December Oggi e Domani (“Salviamo Almeno il Giudizio Universale”) – see Fig. 28. Crocetti’s account was detailed and technically informed. He began by explaining how he had appealed unavailingly in 1983 to the director general of the Vatican Museums, Prof. Carlo Pietrangeli, to desist from incurring the “rapid biological degradation caused by the cleaning power” of AB 57. Crocetti flatly dismissed claims that the glues had been applied by restorers. He also testified that as early as 1983 applications of AB 57 had been standardised at 3 minutes each, regardless of local conditions (see below). He complained of the folly of cleaning aggressively in small patches, zones that had originally been made with very broad applications. These glue-paint applications, he noted, had been made chiefly in the shaded parts of the figures and to such artistically selective purpose that Michelangelo’s authorship was beyond question. As a (formerly) supreme case in point, see Fig. 1.
The Effects of the Double Applications of AB 57
Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method then being used on Michelangelo was particularly damning. He noted that while the first 3 minutes long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day, left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the solvents to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones.
He considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear – see Fig. 28. He believed that the ferocity of AB 57 made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed (in particular, see Figs. 11-16). Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes remained “excellent”, and that this was in part due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s, he found himself near to despair.
The Invasive Ferocity and Likely Legacy of AB 57
The AB 57 water-based paste used to remove Michelangelo’s size painting contained two “caustics”: sodium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate. Professor Frommel had questioned the method of application: “Who knows if they succeed in cleaning this completely away? No one can prove whether or not it will affect the frescoes in the future. No one can say definitely if they get all of it off.” Consider Colalucci’s own account of the method of application:
“The times of application, rigorously measured, were:
First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing.
In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”
Chemically Adjusting Michelangelo’s Colours
AB 57, a calcium dissolving solvent, was thus used to remove organic materials with an oven-cleaner like ferocity and speed even though many experts held those very materials to comprise authentic Michelangelo work. Contrary to assurances otherwise, the aesthetic consequences of this stripping extended, as Crocetti had observed at first hand, into the very fabric of the exposed fresco surfaces. This was a serious matter. The Vatican’s research chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli had explained that AB 57 contained two separate salts because while “Ammonium Carbonate alone tends to tone down colours…sodium carbonate livens them up”. The Moras’ combination, he judged, had “the proper chromatic effect”. So far as we know, it was never explained by what means the “proper” combination for Michelangelo might have been established.
Juggling with dangerous chemicals and processes constitutes professional chic in some restoration quarters. Restorers often claim that a dangerous chemical in “safe hands” is better than a mild one in “untrained hands”. When restorers speak among themselves, the professional conceits are more evident. The IIC Bulletin carried an obituary on Paolo Mora who died on 27 March 1998. He had studied under Mauro Pelliccioli, who restored Leonardo’s Last Supper, and, reportedly, was fond of claiming that he could clean a picture with a broom and drugstore chemicals. When he found himself too busy to clean a large Bellini altarpiece, Pelliccioli enlisted two students and showed them how to dissolve rods of caustic soda in water. He demonstrated his cleaning technique by sweeping a swab of soda over the picture with one hand followed immediately by a “neutralising” swipe with a turpentine swab with the other. Thus enlightened, the students were said to have “cleaned the large painting in a single day”.
The AB 57 Rinse-Water Menace
Aside from exposing the stripped fresco surfaces to the Chapel’s notoriously polluted atmosphere, yet other risks were taken in pursuit of brighter colours. Removing the water-based solvent gel with copious amounts of washing risked, as Frommel feared and Crocetti had observed, depositing corrosive ingredients within the frescoes. The “highly soluble” ingredients were said to have been selected because “they are easy to wash off”. It was certainly desirable that they should be so: carboxymethyl cellulose is known to encourage sodium retention; ‘Desogen’, being a detergent as well as fungicide, is non-volatile and does not evaporate. The Moras had conceded that these ingredients have “the disadvantage of remaining in the painting unless removed after treatment by rinsing with water”.
There are problems with washing, however. First, the rinse water was absorbed deeply into the porous fresco and with it, inevitably, particles of soluble and corrosive ingredients. Twenty four hours were needed for the water to evaporate before a second application of AB 57 could be applied. Second, tap water may contain solutions of sodium, iron, copper, and chloride, and unless it is packed with sufficient calcium bicarbonate, will itself attack the calcium carbonate of fresco. Even distilled water (which is free of impurities) slowly dissolves calcium carbonate and attacks the frescoes’ structure. When challenged in 1991 on having introduced dangerous materials into the frescoes, Colalucci replied: “AB 57…has been greatly tested and is very old. The actual solvent is held within a gel which does not allow the particles of the actual solvent to penetrate the plaster and the colour. However, the gel is removed and only a minimal (if any) percentage might remain which has no influence on the colours.” In 1986 Colalucci disclosed that, at that date “The work was concluded with abundant rinsing, repeated at intervals of up to several months” and that only “The last rinsing was done with distilled water”. Much copious washing was thus carried out with tap water.
Mirella Simonetti on Dangerous Deposits and their Air-Borne Allies
Far from having “no influence”, experts expressly feared that residues deposited within the frescoes by rinsing would react with airborne pollutants and moisture. The restorer Mirella Simonetti held one of AB57’s ingredients, bicarbonate of soda, to be an “extremely damaging” residue because, when combined with the sulphates of calcium and air-borne sulphuric anhydrites, it produces sodium sulphate – a whitish dust which corrodes the fresco and destroys its coloured surface. Simonetti also maintained that the use of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) within the solvent gel had chemically altered the fresco by causing a “breakdown in the molecular structure [and] bringing about a disintegration [which] in turn causes the division of the components and the discohesion of the lime.” Once weakened in this fashion, the disintegration would continue – and “even water can favour such a process”. Simonetti’s alarm was later vindicated when, tests showed that the compound’s corrosive properties etched the surface of marble into irregular corrugations, scattering light and imparting a deceiving effect of brightness that provided more routes of ingress to airborne pollutants.
Fresco Painting and Its Known Enemies
It had long been recognised that air-borne sulphur attacks fresco. In 1884 the reverend J. A. Rivington explained in a paper delivered at the Society of Arts in London how air contaminated by coal and gas emissions destroys fresco: “The carbonate of lime is converted into the sulphate, breaking up the paint and becoming itself disintegrated in the process of change.” The notoriously contaminated air surrounding and invading the Sistine chapel contains sulphur dioxide from coal-burning, nitrous oxides from car exhausts and hydrogen chloride from incinerated plastics. When combined with rain or condensed water these substances produce sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids respectively, all fiercely corrosive. Water is brought into the Chapel by tourists in the form of perspiration and breathing vapour while breathing itself gives off carbon dioxide.
On 12 December 2012, Corriere della Sera reported: “‘Dust, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide are the great enemies of paintings’, Museum Director Antonio Paolucci told reporters in the Vatican, ‘so this threat is something we have to address. The five million tourists who visit the Sistine Chapel each year bring massive amounts of grime and humidity with them, and it is seriously damaging Michelangelo’s frescoes. So starting in the middle of 2013, every tourist will be thoroughly vacuumed, dusted, cleaned, and chilled before admission to reduce the amount of environmental pollution they cause.
‘On entering the chapel, each tourist will be required to pass through a hi-tech vacuum system to remove dust, fibres, skin flakes, hair and other tiny particles, before they are allowed to view the frescoes. At the same time, a special carpet will also clean their shoes, while side vacuums will cool their temperature, to reduce the heat and humidity that emanates from their bodies. The dirt and heat generated by the 20,000 bodies each day has caused grime to accumulate on the paintings, and a thick layer of dirt had to be scrubbed off of the Last Judgment two years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen again.’”
What Goes Round, Comes Round
We have been there before. In “Art Restoration” in 1993 we wrote: “A recent report commissioned by the Vatican on the Chapel’s microclimate noted that the very large numbers of tourists produce the following adverse effects: they carry in from the streets polluted dust and organic particles on their clothing and hair; their combined body heat raises the temperature by as much as 5°C; and they greatly increase the relative humidity of the air. The moisture and carbon dioxide given off by tourists combines to produce carbonic acid which dissolves the calcium carbonate of the fresco. Water vapours convert sulphur particles into sulphuric acid which also dissolves fresco. The body heat creates convective air currents which carry polluted particles up to the walls and ceilings. Water vapour can activate the traces of salt and detergent left behind after the cleaning with AB57.”
In 1981 Colalucci had equated the glue/size paints with “extraneous chemical substances” without which “and with the science we have today” he hoped “the frescoes will remain in good condition for a very long time”. As mentioned, he offered an assurance that he had left “a very thin film of dirt touching the paint surface with its varying ‘patina’. This fine layer of dirt acts as a form of protection to the paint.” As also mentioned, we now know that whatever Colalucci might have left behind performed no such service, and that dirt on frescoes is no protection from further accumulations of corrosive dirt.
There have been many unfounded assurances. In 1987 Kathleen Weil Garris Brandt, Professor of Fine Arts, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and spokeswoman for the Vatican on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, assured readers in Apollo that, “The substances used for the cleaning…have been used successfully for over twenty years… their chemical action is known and stops once the process is finished…the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface”. Just months before in the Summer 1987 Art News, Summer 1987, the Moras themselves had claimed no more than that placing the solvents in a cellulose gel helped to “reduce penetration into the fresco”. In the summer 1987 Art News, the assurances were becoming more specific. M. Kirby Talley Jr., an independent consultant in fine art, interiors and art conservation, wrote:
“In order to prevent the condensation of moisture on the surface of the fresco, the Vatican has already embarked on an extensive programme to control the micro-climate of the Sistine Chapel. Professor Camuffo of the University of Padua spent a year making detailed measurements of relative humidity, temperature and air movement. A climate-control system based on his findings, which will prevent the movement of air above the windows as well as filter it, is now being developed by Carrier-Delchi. Electrical heating coils, ‘A sort of giant electrical blanket,’ as Persegati called it, will be placed under the roof above the ceiling, and will help to maintain a steady temperature during the winter. A dirt absorbing carpet has already been installed on the stairs down to the chapel and on part of the floor inside. Carrier-Delchi is considering a wind shower to remove dust particles from people’s clothing before they enter the chapel. Low heat lamps that can be adjusted to the amount of natural light entering through the windows will further reduce the temperature.”
Synthetic Resins – On or Off?
Talley Jr. reported that Colalucci had assured him that Michelangelo had used no secco paint on the lunettes, and that while the synthetic resin B 72 had been used to seal the walls of the lunettes it had not been used to that purpose on the ceiling. Even the official apologias for B 72 were more disturbing than reassuring: “Like all restoration materials it has its good and its bad points”, Talley said. Frommel was quoted as saying “According to the critics B 72 is something which may become opaque in the future. Are the critics right when they say we don’t know what it will do? They say tests should have been made and then a long period of time should have been allowed to elapse before proceeding. Paraloid can close the surface to respiration. It can close the pores, and if that were to happen it might change the interior life of the fresco.” To this Talley gave voice to B 72’s champions. According to the Moras “If you don’t use Paraloid, what do you use? Organic resins and inorganic fixatives such as lime water, ethysilicates and barium hydroxide all have serious drawbacks. Of the synthetic resins the acrylics are the best, and of the acrylics Paraloid is the least bad.” Was the least bad, good enough for Michelangelo – and better than his own secco painting which had for centuries protected the fresco surfaces from airborne pollutants?
On this question, the Vatican’s accounts prove unsatisfactory and shifting. All that can be said safely is that B 72 was abandoned and not replaced at some point between 1986 and 1991, at which latter date Colaucci claimed “There was no final application to protect or saturate the painting”. This change of mind was defended in 1991: “Our decision not to apply a protective material derived from the awareness that any new material which is not homogeneous with the original components of the fresco will undergo rapid degradation, causing, in the best of cases, aesthetic damage.” This being so, we must expect some parts of the frescoes to deteriorate more rapidly than others – but how many? In 1991 Colaucci put B 72 applications at “lunettes 50 per cent, ceiling 3 per cent”. In 1993 (“Art Restoration” p. 120) we had noted that while protection of the frescoes was to depend on the thin layer of original dirt that Colalucci claimed to have left in place and on the above described plans to stabilise and purify the chapel’s microclimate: “When Michael Daley asked if the air-conditioning system would eliminate the great fluctuations triggered by tourists, he [Mancinelli] replied ‘No. It will reduce the peaks and the troughs but will not eliminate the problem entirely.’” Of course, at that date, as today, the problems could have been halved by halving the numbers of tourists. Then, as perhaps still is the case, on days when the Chapel was closed to visitors, visitor numbers to the Vatican museums fell by 60 per cent.
The Breach of Methodological Good Practice that Menaced Michelangelo’s Shading
In the execution of the cleaning, certain procedural lapses compounded the risks and dangers. Early in the programme (in 1981 when working on the lunettes), Colalucci had said that AB 57: “was created mainly for marble but the Moras experimented with it on fresco. It is like paste. It can be on for a minute or ten minutes. The effect varies with the amount of time it spends in contact with a surface. The danger is that if you leave it on a minute or two too long it will go beyond the foreign substances and start removing the paint. You can see little areas where I’ve applied AB57 in two or three stages. Each time I take it off well before it’s too late. Then I look at it and gauge how much more time it will need…Here’s a tiny patch where I left it on too long. In this little experimental patch you see completely solid violet paint, but around it you can see the gradations of dark and light, which are the shadings of Michelangelo’s own work.”
Why, then, were the varying thicknesses of the (mis-designated) “foreign and extraneous substances” all given identical applications of two three minutes-long applications set twenty-four hours apart? Such an uniform treatment of so vast and varying a programme of painting seemed to breach conservation’s own ethics and “good practice”. As we had reported in “Art Restoration”:
“Within four years, Colalucci had abandoned this control of the solvent by constant observation and timing. In its place a standardized procedure was adopted, described in the 1986 ‘General Report on the Lunettes’: ‘First application, three minutes followed by removal and washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application, three minutes followed by washing and leaving to dry as before’. These three-minute applications were said to have been ‘rigorously measured’. Colalucci explained the reason for the change of procedure: the size of the ceiling required that work be carried out by a team. Individual restorers, responding to the evidence of their own eyes, would draw different conclusions. Therefore, in order to obtain a ‘homogeneity of result’ – a ‘primary objective’ – they must be denied the opportunity to judge for themselves how long the solvent should remain in place. Solvent applications had to be predetermined, Colalucci felt, in order to avoid ‘either emotional involvement or complex mechanical manipulation on the part of the restorers’. When asked in 1985 at the Wethersfield Conference in New York why he did not adjust the timing to what his eyes were witnessing, he replied: ‘Because emotional or subjective conditions must not be permitted to intrude upon science.’ The scaffold, he added, did not permit stepping back to assess effects and the continuous bright lights of the Japanese film-makers ‘fatigued one’s eyes’. The activity of the film crews was itself a distraction as was also his having to entertain up to sixteen VIP visitors a day…” See Figs. 34 and 35.
Conservation Ethics and Showbiz Restorations
The inventors of AB57 held that cleaning should never be considered “entirely a technical matter…confined merely to the choice of solvent”. The restorer’s responsibility for the control of the solvent’s actions is absolute and should never be left to “depend on the natural uncontrolled action of the products” and must always depend on “the precise wish and aim of the restorer guided by his critical interpretation”. By failing to exercise control at all times, the restorer “deprives himself of the principal alarm signal when faced with new situations; he gives up looking ahead and allows the problem to resolve itself mechanically so that subsequently he can impose the result as an accomplished fact.”
By test-driving a new cleaning agent under television studio conditions in a constricted, over-crowded and art-politically febrile space, the Vatican restorers pioneered a new professional genre: conservation as both entertainment and professional swank. The combination of the Nippon Television Corporation sponsored showbiz and a provocatively radical restoration drew many protests. This spawned intensely propagandistic promotional razzmatazz, the unprecedented scale and character of which will be examined in Part III.
“The activity of restoration can be defined in terms of two overlapping headings, procedure and method. Procedure is fixed and invariable, and consists in the scientific planning and execution of the restoration project, regardless of the material involved. Method, however, is the department strictly of the action taken in the course of the restoration, and is therefore variable, subject to factors arising from the material, technique and state of conservation of the monument involved.
“The adoption of a procedure which governs the progress of the work is characteristic of modern restoration. Under the impetus of a marked development in technological expertise, modern restoration has extended its established and primary function of conservation for aesthetic ends to include a research capacity, directed towards the work of art considered as an inseparable duality, conceptual and material.
“In the past restoration practice aimed at cancelling out the effects of time and events upon the work of art, termed by Brandi comprehensively its historical aspect, absolute priority was given to its aesthetic aspect, conditioned of course by its contingent situation. The restoration of works of art was therefore entrusted to artists, who were free to introduce personal methods, often secret or private, consistent with the aim of returning the work to its pristine material state, but not necessarily to its original intended state.
“In the evolution of the ‘art’ of restoration, the laboratory for the Restoration of Pictures in the Vatican Museums has had a not insignificant role. Founded in 1992 by Biagio Biagetti according to the latest ideas, and subsequently provided with a Laboratory for Scientific Research, the institute is today directed by by Carlo Pietrangeli who in 1978 established its guidlines in Rules for the restoration of works of art.
“In June 1980 this laboratory, constitutionally responsible for the restoration of the pictorial patrimony of the Holy See, qualified and informed by its enormous experience, which goes back more than 50 years and has been constantly renewed both technically and in terms of personnel, undertook the most important task it had yet undertaken in its history, the restoration of the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel…” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo’s Colours Rediscovered”, “The Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo Rediscovered”, London, 1986.
“The restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was a venture that shook the very foundations of the art world more than any other single event has managed to do in the last quarter of a century.
“Promoted and conducted with rigorously conservative objectives, over the course of its execution the restoration program assumed an ever-growing significance in historical and critical terms – an importance that was foretold when the first patches were cleaned and was fully confirmed by the restoration of the Eleazar-Mathan lunette.” ~ Gianluigi Colalucci, “Michelangelo The Vatican Frescoes”, by Pierluigi de Vecchi and Gianluigi Colalucci, 1996.
“…The intuition that the colours must have been quite different from those that could be seen can be found sporadically in the writings of the more perceptive scholars of Michelangelo, from [Charles Heath] Wilson to Biagetti and Wilde. But clear and conclusive evidence of the original colours was established for the first time in recent times by the extraordinary photographs of the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura, taken just before the restoration and published in a book of 1980, unfortunately in a small limited edition and now not widely seen. The eye of the camera, in itself much more acute than the human eye, and aided by much stronger light than is usually available in the Chapel, revealed beneath the dirt and deteriorated glue-varnish the tangible existence of of what the restoration today is gradually retrieving.
“Although the book with Okamura’s photographs and the restoration that is now proceeding came about independently and for different reasons, the two are complementary, and Okamura’s book is today a valuable record of what for centuries had masked the true nature of Michelangelo’s painting; if the cleaning had not gone ahead, it would have been the sole means by which to achieve a proper or effective analysis of his work…” ~ Fabrizio Mancinelli, “Michelangelo at Work”, “The Sistine Chapel Michelangelo rediscovered”, London, 1986.
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“Pick Up A Pencil”
The theme of the new ArtWatch UK members’ Journal (see right) is “The Primacy of the Visual”. Failures to acknowledge, address, or even recognise visual evidence are examined. The text of Charles Hope’s 2011 James Beck Memorial Lecture is carried in full. Professor Hope cites failures of the National Gallery’s curators and restorers to address opponents’ arguments or to recognise the import of key historical documents on artistic practice. When Professor James Beck, the late founder of ArtWatch International, lent support to artist-critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration he came under vicious attacks from some scholarly peers – for all the world as if he had betrayed a priesthood of the visually ignorant. Prof Hope cites a letter of that kind. If artists do sometimes discomfort scholars, it is no presumption: knowing how art is made they are precisely the best qualified to detect its un-making. Here, the painter (and photographer) Gareth Hawker discusses both fundamental differences between painting and photography and the widespread failures to recognise these differences. His demonstration is timely. If (as we have argued elsewhere), art schools have given up the ghost with regard to teaching the traditional skills that formerly equipped artists to recognise restoration blunders, in the wider world of commercial film-making there are signs – notwithstanding giant leaps in the powers of digitalised image-making – of a renaissance in traditional art practices. We discussed this paradoxical relationship in connection with the extraordinary accomplishment of the hand-crafted animated film Frankenweenie. Another such heartening case is discussed opposite. [M. D.]
A Photograph is a Copy, not a Creation, Gareth Hawker writes:
“…we have realised that we should give more attention to photography”. So wrote the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, in his introduction to the current exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present . Several reviewers seem to agree. Tabish Khan wrote that, “…photography is a contemporary art form that can be just as inspiring and impressive as painting” . But photographs do not incorporate the high-level thinking that paintings do. It would be misleading to put them in the same category.
The difference between painting and photography is frequently glossed over. For example, many people suggest that the camera is a tool just like brushes and pencils. At first sight, this may appear to make sense. The photographer decides what to include in the picture, in the same way that a painter often does. He chooses where to place the camera; in which direction to point it; how far to zoom in on a subject; and when to press the shutter. He may select models, costumes, and arrange lighting. All these factors contribute to what is called the ‘scene’ – the image in the viewfinder. The ‘scene’ may be recorded by a photographer just as well as by a painter, so the argument goes: they just use different tools in order to complete the same task. However this is to ignore what the tools are used for. The camera is used to record the scene, while the brushes and pencils are used to analyse it. The importance of this analysis is often overlooked.
Photographers who have wanted to claim equal status with painters have made various approaches, all ignoring this analytical element. At first they blurred and smudged photographs in order to make them look like paintings. Then photographers claimed that theirs was a totally separate art form, a pure record of the scene. Some argued against this, saying that if a photograph were pure, it could not be artistic. Before this issue could be resolved, some writers swept it aside. They suggested that what mattered was, “conceiving an image in the brain and finding some way of expressing it” . What counted was the viewer’s response – whether a work, “spoke” to the viewer . This disregarded a significant factor: people do not respond to paintings in the same way as they do to photographs, especially if they can see that a painting provides evidence of thinking, in a way that a photograph does not.
Paintings look different from photographs because they are made differently. A painting is constructed from brushstrokes; each stroke the result of a decision. A painting may represent a scene, or it may represent nothing at all. A painting is an independent creation, whereas a photograph is dependant on the scene. A photograph can be made only if there is a scene to be copied.
A representational painting may be compared to the summary at the beginning of a scientific paper – the paragraph which is entitled, “Abstract”. Its writer makes a personal judgment about which are the most important topics dealt with in the paper, and writes a brief account of his own. The “Abstract” is a new and independent piece of writing, just as a representational painting is a new and independent analysis of the scene. In contrast, a photograph is like a photocopy of the whole scientific paper. The photocopy shows no analysis, and no judgment.
Brushstrokes are only the most basic way in which a painter’s analysis or abstraction may be seen. Another is in the simplification of the human figure – in its reconstruction in terms of geometrical solids, such as eggs and cylinders. Even a simple tracing – the lowest form of analysis – shows which lines the painter has considered to be more important than others.
To give a computing analogy: a photograph is like a bitmap image (which records only pixels – spots of colour), but a painting is like a vector image (which records instructions about where lines are to go). A tracing programme can convert a bitmap file into a vector file. The computer makes a simplification which looks similar to a paint-by-numbers drawing. This computer drawing may be thought of as the beginning of an attempt to imitate human analysis – a type of artificial intelligence – though the computer has a long way to go before it catches up with the human brain in this respect (Fig. 1). If anything may be thought of as being a tool comparable with brushes and pencils, it is a tracing programme (which helps to analyse), not a camera (which does not).
To express the difference in another way:
Scene = Photograph
(Scene = Photograph) × Analysis = Painting
Analysis is an essential part of what makes a representational painting interesting to look at; whereas what makes a photograph interesting to look at is the scene, not its treatment.
Analysis demands abstract thinking – whether it is done well or done badly. What distinguishes the great painter from the mediocrity is the quality of this thinking, not any manual skill. Anyone who can sign his name, already has enough manual skill to make a great drawing. (This includes drawing in its wider sense: deciding where to place marks made by the pencil or the brush, even when no outlines may be involved).
The modern digital camera provides the most effective means for recording the scene that has ever been devised. Strangely, many photographers want to use it for a different purpose, to express an interpretation – a purpose for which it is singularly unsuited. Some photographers deliberately introduce all sorts of inaccuracies which mean that the result is neither a pure substitute for the scene, nor an independent creation.
The classical case for photography’s status as an equal to painting was put forward by the man who was perhaps, “the most important figure in the history of the visual arts in America” – Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) . In his usage, the word ‘artist’ meant someone who, “got the spirit of the truth” . He held that only 0.1% of painters were artists, and only 0.1% of photographers were artists. But not everyone takes such an exalted view. For example, a tax inspector wants to know whether a painter is a house-painter or an artist, not whether he has, “got the spirit of the truth”. So when a painter says that he is an artist, he is simply describing his activity. He is not claiming to be either good or bad at his job: that is for others to decide. But when a photographer says that he is an artist he is claiming to be in the top 0.1% of his profession: he is pushing others to accept the valuation he has placed on his own work.
By using the word ‘artist’ in this way, Stieglitz moved attention away from a vital distinction; that between creating something new (a painting) and making a copy (a photograph). He persuaded many viewers to ignore analysis, and to concentrate on the selection and arrangement of a scene – on pointing and shooting.
Stieglitz’s advocacy, along with that of other theorists, seems to have desensitised many viewers. They see only the subject which has been represented. They fail to notice that a painting exhibits the working of a mind – not just in the choice of subject, but in every single stroke. One consequence of this desensitisation became apparent when the Sistine ceiling was treated by restorers, and much of the best painting ever produced was wiped off. The picture of a man looks like a man, whether it is drawn well or drawn badly. Most historians were satisfied with what remained after the paint-stripping because they could still identify the subjects which had been depicted. Very few noticed how drastically the quality of the drawing had been reduced.
Many people were better informed about these issues in the days when Michelangelo painted his great work. Contemporaries who saw it for the for the first time commented at least as much on the power of its drawing, as on its subject matter . The way in which influential men looked at nudes in those days may be compared with the way in which they look at motor cars now: with an appreciation of the beauty of engineering and construction – an appreciation which derives in part from an understanding of how all the parts connect together.
The paint-stripping made nonsense of some of the connections in Michelangelo’s nudes. His contemporaries would have been appalled, but most of today’s historians and television presenters do not even notice. They focus on the imagery and the iconography, not on the drawing. It is as if they were waiting for the work to ‘speak’ to them – for the artistic content to make itself felt. But, being sensitive only to subject-matter, that is all that they are able to see. Such narrowly prepared minds will respond only to the crudest visual stimulus (the colours looking brighter after the top layer of paint has been removed, for example).
Just as the critical response to painting has become limited, so the meaning of the word Art has expanded – to such a degree that almost anything seems to be embraced by it, including photography. However painting remains distinct: it is a creation which is independent, and which can embody the kind of analysis described above. This is why painting may be categorised with the higher expressions of the human mind, along with poetry and philosophy. Photography does not fit into this category because it cannot display abstract thinking.
But painting is now so little appreciated that, to many people, it seems comparable with photography. This has allowed photography to be called Art, and so to enter the National Gallery. Arguably this is the same lack of discrimination that has allowed paint-stripping to take place, not only on the Sistine ceiling, but on almost all the great works of painting in the Western World, including those in the National Gallery.
“Giving more attention to photography”, seems to be one more example of this downward trend, but perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. When a great artist’s paint has been removed from a picture, the decline in its artistic quality is irreversible; but a decline in critical awareness is different: it can be reversed. At present, many people are only distantly aware that, in every brushstroke, a representational painting gives evidence of analytical thinking. Perhaps the exhibition at the National Gallery will help to promote this awareness. If so, it will have served a very useful purpose.
1 The National Gallery, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, Yale University Press (9 Oct 2012), ISBN-10: 1857095456, ISBN-13: 978-1857095456
The exhibition runs from 31 October 2012 to 20 January 2013
2 londonist. Art-review-seduced-by-art-photography-national-gallery. Retrieved 8 November 2012
3 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p23
4 Gerry Badger. Collecting Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003. ISBN 1-84000-726-5 p24
5 Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p ix
6 Alfred Stieglitz, Is Photography a Failure?, The Sun, New York, March 14, 1922 – reprinted in, Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, Aperture, 2000, p 229
7 http://artwatchuk.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/12th-november-2012/ Retrieved 12 November 2012
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From Annigoni to Banksy: restorers’ crimes against art and graffitist’s crimes against architecture
In cyber-space, a thousand people a day ask: “Is graffiti an art form or a crime?” Edgar Degas, distraught at the handiwork of picture restorers at the Louvre, once threatened to write a pamphlet of protest that would be “a bomb”. Nearly a century later in Britain, a royal portraitist similarly distraught at the actions of restorers, painted a protest on the doors of the National Gallery. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker, taking graffiti as an art form, examines both the motives and the proclaimed “ethical codes” of those who deface/defile buildings and public spaces, and, the sometimes morally ambivalent responses of the public to such actions.
Gareth Hawker writes:
Colin Martindale developed a theory about the way in which art forms evolve. If he is going to get a place in the history books, each artist must outdo his predecessor. He must produce something more exciting; he must strike the imagination more forcibly. Martindale traced this line of development in many areas, not only in painting and in poetry, where one might expect it, but in the development of gravestones in New England and even in the writing of scientific papers. People seem to crave novelty and thrills. So it should come as no surprise to see a similar pressure at work in yet another art-form, that of criminal damage.
When the form was new, it was easy to outdo predecessors, who had been limited to paint-brushes, chalk and charcoal. The spray-can revolutionised graffiti. Simple slogans could be written with great speed. A tradition emerged. This tradition developed rapidly and soon came to what may be termed its academic stage, where rules were formulated which became widely recognised and accepted amongst practitioners.
I learnt from a television programme that the rules were as follows:
1) The paint cans must be stolen (‘nicked’).
2) The paint must be applied freehand (i.e. without stencils).
3) The surface must be hard to get to – the work must demonstrate that a logistical challenge has been overcome. The artist must show that he is a daring sort of character.
4) The artist should break the law. He should not have permission to spray the surface, whether a wall or the side of an underground train.
5) The work should not incorporate another artist’s work.
6) Painting over another artist’s work may be acceptable, but is generally considered to show “disrespect” and is likely to be frowned on. (The fact that the graffiti artist is himself showing disrespect to the wider community does not seem to figure in these considerations.)
The main purpose initially was to mark out and lay claim to a territory. (“Like a dog pissing on a lamp-post”). The placing of an elaborate signature (tag) could demonstrate that an area was now controlled by the graffiti writer and his pals, not by the police or by the local community. The cleaning off of graffiti was a vital element in the “zero tolerance” approach which police adopted in New York, and which ultimately proved successful in reducing the number of murders in that city. This aggressive cleaning made it clear that the police and the local community now controlled the area, not the graffiti writers and other hoodlums.
However the art form did continue to develop elsewhere. Artists had to find ways in which to make their productions more arousing. In Paris one man ["Blek le Rat"] started to use stencils. This meant he could prepare relatively complicated images at home, in the safety of his own studio, and then use his stencils on site in order to apply complicated images with extreme rapidity. This meant his images were far more interesting to look at than the simple lines and colours which had been used previously.
When Banksy copied this approach in the UK it incensed traditionalists. He was cheating. This is similar to the outcry when Caravaggio started to use big contrasts of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His pictures were more eye-catching than anything before, but the big contrasts of tone made it impossible for the viewer to see the construction of the figures as easily as in previous work. In art there is rarely a gain in one aspect of style without a loss in another. In the case of graffiti art, the gain in recognisability, complexity, humour and wit was matched by an equivalent loss in rhythm, clarity and spontaneity.
Banksy seems to have broken all the rules:
1 His paint is not always stolen (‘nicked’).
2 He uses stencils (cheating).
3 Although he does paint illegally, his work is worth so much that some councils protect it with perspex. As a quasi-acceptable part of the local community, he becomes unacceptable amongst the traditional graffiti writers. In practice, his work is hardly illegal at all.
4 By using stencils he reduced the amount of time he would have had to spend on site if he were to produce an equally complicated image. He was playing safe, not taking as much risk as his predecessors.
5 His work is collected by hedge-fund managers and celebrities who pay high prices. These new clients are the very people whom graffiti was originally meant to scare. Pleasing them represents a complete failure according to the old standards.
6 He partially painted over the work of a predecessor, a classic work of the genre. This shows total disrespect and is extremely offensive to traditionalists. (They seem to see no irony in their position. They are vandals who are furious to see their work vandalised by another vandal. They feel proud to break rules, but hate someone who breaks even more rules than they do. It is an example of very strict honour amongst thieves.)
Graffiti artists are prosecuted from time to time: some of their greatest works are destroyed. Why should Banksy be allowed to get away with it? The man in Camden whose task it is to decide what should be removed and what should be allowed to remain, said he has to make a judgement about how far the graffiti “adds value”. In other words, if the work was by Banksy it might be worth thousands of pounds, but if by another artist, it might be worth less than nothing. It may be worth spending money to get rid of it.
The arbiter in Camden wisely kept away from a discussion about whether graffiti was art. As Gombrich pointed out, many unproductive discussions about the definition of art may be avoided if one substitutes for “art” the word, “skill” – which is the original meaning of the word “art”. The man in Camden has to think about money, not philosophy.
Banksy seems to get away with it because his works are like newspaper cartoons, they raise a brief smile. People seem to be able to accept a great deal as long as there is some humour involved. How far will the public allow this sort of thing to go? Witty old criminals appear on chat shows on the radio, as if they are lovable old rogues, even though they have been convicted of torture and murder. Presumably the same spirit applies to graffiti. People will forgive a rich man many things, particularly if he makes them laugh and is not too close to home. He can get away with a lot more than a poor man who is boring and lives next door.
What would you do if Banksy sprayed your wall? Naturally you would want to cash in, just as if someone stole your expensive paintings you would be prepared to pay a ransom to get them back. But this would only encourage other graffiti artists to paint other people’s walls, and other thieves to steal yet more paintings. Is it reasonable to let a criminal off just because he makes you smile and because you might profit from his crime?
Not all of us find the jokes very funny anyway. I myself like plain old walls undistorted by graffiti. The brick walls seen from the train on the way into Liverpool Street Station used to have a lovely colour and patina – a sombre grandeur. Their intact surface was ruined by graffiti. This was eventually painted over in one solid dense colour. This is better than graffiti, but its surface is dull and unresponsive to the light compared to that of the old brickwork. Cleaning off graffiti can never bring back the original surface. “Something is always lost,” as Nicholas Penny once said of cleaning paintings at the National Gallery (where he is currently in charge).
If the issues are serious, it could be argued that breaking the law can be morally justifiable. When, in 1970, Annigoni wrote MURDERERS on the front of the National Gallery, he was not laying claim to territory, nor was he making a joke. He was trying to draw attention to the destruction wrought inside that building. His protests, and those of other eminent artists, had been ignored and he was desperate. And again his protest met with silence. Annigoni’s graffito had failed. The destruction continued, as the gallery’s own before and after restoration photographs demonstrate.
(For the artist’s earlier, entirely law-abiding but unavailing protest – Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in The Times, 14 July 1956 – see the “Appendix” of our 20 April post.)
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